Monday 24 October 2016

The GAA kit-maker that keeps going from strength to strength

Ryan Nugent

Published 20/09/2016 | 02:30

Cormac Farrell, business marketing manager with O’Neills Photos: Gerry Mooney
Cormac Farrell, business marketing manager with O’Neills Photos: Gerry Mooney
Fans Rachel Burke (left) and Aoife Brady, from Knocklyon, Co Dublin, at the All-Ireland football final at Croke Park Picture: Sportsfile
Mayo’s Aiden O’Shea is tackled by Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

As synonymous with the GAA as Guinness is with Ireland, the O'Neills sporting brand holds a near monopoly on county kits.

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But from where has the success - which sees the firm behind the brand gross €9m a year - come from?

Founded by Charles O'Neill in a small shop on Dublin's Capel Street in 1918, O'Neills initially specialised in the production of GAA footballs and sliotars.

However, when Mr O'Neill passed away in 1955, his son Brian took on the mantle and undertook an ambitious expansion plan, which included "a higher standard" of GAA kits that is now worn by almost every GAA team in the country.

Since the 1980s, the company's main office has been located in Walkinstown, Dublin 12.

Balbriggan Textiles Limited, run by Paul and Anthony Towell, is now the company behind the O'Neills brand.

The company's main manufacturing plant, which produces the jerseys worn by the likes of Dublin and Mayo in the All-Ireland final, is in Strabane, Co Tyrone.

The different elements of the kit are then taken to Walkinstown, where they are stitched together and distributed.

Apart from the Waterford footballers and hurlers - who favour kits produced by Azzurri Sport - and Sligo, who wear a strip by Kukri, O'Neills rules the roost when it comes to kitting out the players in Croke Park and county grounds.

The firm's business marketing manager, Cormac Farrell told the Irish Independent that each county board agrees a separate kit deal with the GAA.

Each board is dealt with individually, with a tendering process engaged every time a manufacturing contract is up.

Mr Farrell says the firm's links with the GAA are strong because of the long relationship that they have enjoyed.

"My opinion would be that we're around 98 years, so we would have built up a relationship and developed as a company, so our product has developed immensely over the years.

"As the GAA has grown, we as a company have grown," Mr Farrell explained.

But he denies that O'Neills receives favourable treatment from the GAA or county boards.

"We're in a commercial world and the reality is that it's dog eat dog. But we would obviously have strong relationships because we've been around a while and people get to know you.

"They know our strengths and we know their strengths and weaknesses and we have some as well."

As the business has grown, O'Neills has broadened its reach to a variety of different sports worldwide.

Latest figures show that in 2014 the company's net profit almost doubled on the previous year's figures, jumping from €266,579 to €449,132.

One of the most important aspects of their marketing abroad is the Irish diaspora playing GAA across the globe.

The O'Neills dominance was made crystal clear during the GAA World Games in Dublin this year, where teams from the USA, Canada, the UK and Middle East were all represented at UCD and Croke Park.

"We had 90 odd per cent of the business. That didn't happen by chance," said Mr Farrell. "We sponsored the Games for starters, so we're giving them something and they're giving us something back, by coming back to buy our product.

"It's a good Irish story, that when the Irish emigrate they come home to shop because they have an affinity with the O'Neills brand.

"I think it's an Irish thing - when the Irish people emigrate, they still send home for their Tayto, their rashers and their Denny sausages.

"They were brought up in a lot of cases where their GAA club wore O'Neills."

Irish Independent

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